The earliest chronograph dates back to the 19th century. The story goes that it was invented at the behest of King Louis XVIII, who wanted to know the duration of the horse races he enjoyed watching. That chronograph was a clockwork mechanism in a box, connected to a pen that marked down elapsed time. Fast-forward to the 20th century: the chronograph’s stopwatch-like function was miniaturized and put into wristwatches for use by pilots, race car drivers and eventually astronauts.
With modern digital timing systems, chronograph watches are complete frivolities today — at its most useful, one would do in a pinch as an egg timer. But for watch nerds, they’re a must-have. They’re a complex, purposeful piece of engineering and design, and their 20th-century associations with derring-do only increase their allure. If you’ve decided you want to take the plunge, these seven are some of the finest mechanical chronographs you can find on sale today.
Tissot Heritage 1948
Tissot’s Heritage 1948 Chronograph was a stealthy release at Baselworld 2017, but it’s one hell of a value. For $1,400 you get a Swiss mechanical chronograph (the movement is ETA’s 2894-2), which is an astounding value, plus an excellent throwback look that harks back to the chronographs of the ’30s and ’40s. It comes in a reserved 39.5mm case with an opaline dial, propeller-shaped hands, Tissot’s throwback logo at 12 o’clock and, if you throw in an extra $50, a mesh steel bracelet.
Hamilton Intra-Matic 68
Hamilton’s star release for 2017 is the Intra-Matic 68, which pays homage to great Hamilton Chronographs from the 1960s. It has a modified Valjoux 7750 inside, comes in at 42mm in diameter and costs a fairly reasonable $2,195. But the best part? That dial: a beautiful black-and-white inverse of the beloved “panda” color scheme of the ’50s and ’60s.
Sinn 144 GMT St
Sinn is one of the few watch brands to employ the Valjoux 7754, a GMT variant of the iconic 7750 chronograph movement. That’s notable on its own, but Sinn’s penchant for engineering really shines through in the 144; it’s anti-magnetic, shock-resistant and water resistant to 200 meters. Despite its toughness, the 144’s sleek case comes in at a reasonable 41mm in diameter.
Omega Speedmaster Professional
The Speedmaster Professional you can buy today is nearly identical to the one worn to the moon in 1969 — same case shape and size, same dial design, nearly the same movement, even. And that’s fine. The Speedmaster of the ’60s was built and tested to be incredibly tough, and its iconic status as the first watch on the moon makes it a must-have for any serious watch collector. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Zenith El Primero
Since it launched in 1969, the El Primero has come in various iterations, but the original is iconic. Powered by one of the first automatic chronographs ever made (and one of very few to operate at 36,000 bph), it has one of the finest movements ever manufactured. The standard version you can buy today comes in a 38mm case with tri-color subdials, making it a great take on a classic.
Rolex Daytona Cosmograph
Rolex caused a stir when it released the updated Daytona Cosmograph in 2016, even though the new watch was a result of relatively small tweaks. The biggest addition is the black ceramic bezel, but the red lettering on the dial and the black-and-white dial colorway make it something of an unofficial tribute to Daytonas of the 1960s. No wonder there’s a waiting list to get one.
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph
Putting aside its sleek, ’70s-inspired case and interchangeable strap system, Vacheron Constantin’s Overseas Chronograph has a jewel of an engine: an in-house automatic chronograph with a column wheel and vertical clutch (rarities that make engagement with the pushers smoother) as well as a solid-gold winding rotor. That high watchmaking is paired with rugged utility thanks to its waterproofness up to 150 meters and anti-magnetism.